Vettel, Alonso and Hamilton – Ultimately, Class Wins Through

Formula One 2010 Rd.8 Canadian GP: Lewis Hamil...

Formula One 2010 Rd.8 Canadian GP: Lewis Hamilton (McLaren), Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull Racing), and Fernando Alonso (Ferrari) on opening lap of the race. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is a different post to the one I thought I might write.  I was going to comment that, for all the excitement of this season, the variability of tyres, team performance and occasional mishaps were making it difficult to assess the contribution being made by the drivers.  Which drivers are really performing and which are being either flattered or frustrated by circumstances beyond their control?

However, I then took a look at the top of the Championship leader board:  Vettel, Alonso, Hamilton.  That looked about right.  You might debate the order, but few would disagree that the three champions have been the most impressive performers of the year.  Raikkonen is just a step further behind, as he has been in the last couple of races, with Webber and Button bubbling under.  It is reassuring that, even in a season of total unpredictability, the cream, ultimately rises to the top.  This was well illustrated at last weekend’s Spanish Grand Prix.  Alonso took his previously wayward Ferrari to third, then second, on the grid and within a sniff of victory.  Vettel recovered well from a drive through penalty and Red Bull rhinoplasty.  Hamilton responded with maturity to the loss of pole and demotion to the back of the grid, for which he was blameless, and drove a race of beautifully balanced aggression with tyre and pit stop austerity.

The same was true back in 1983.  Prost, Tamby and Arnoux all made a pitch for the title, with Alboreto, Watson, Patrese and Rosberg also in the winners’ circle, but, in the end, Piquet and Brabham were worthy winners of the driver’s crown.

None of the above is to deny Maldonado and Williams their moment of Spanish triumph, which was about as unexpected as Bernie Ecclestone announcing that he is renouncing all his worldly goods and joining the Poor Sisters order.

With Monaco next, Hamilton is the favourite to join the 5 winners so far, but there are at least 2-3 other drivers – Webber, Raikkonen and, possibly, Grosjean – who it would be surprising if they don’t also win a race sometime soon.   Whoever ultimately wins this year’s F1 title (and I’m still betting on one of the experienced champions) will certainly have earned it against a fiercely competitive field.

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Williams F1 2004-2012 – Just History Repeating?

Juan Pablo Montoya driving for Williams at the...

Juan Pablo Montoya driving for Williams at the 2004 US GP. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Following Pastor Maldonado’s win in the Spanish GP, many people have commented on the extended gap since the Williams Team last won a F1 race way back in the dim and distant past of 2004.  Of course, much has changed irrevocably in the World over the intervening 8 years.   The news today is almost unrecognisable from the issues that troubled us then.  This is obvious when you look at just some of the headline events from 2004:

  • A High Court judge was conducting a high profile Inquiry into the relationship between politics and the media.
  • In sport, a once proud but now badly cash-strapped nation was hosting the summer Olympic and Paralympic Games.
  • Wolves were relegated from the Premier League
  • In international news, Vladimir Putin was re-elected Russian President.
  • The British Prime Minister visited Libya to extend the hand of friendship to the country’s leadership.
  • A less than popular incumbent American President faced an election battle with an even less inspiring opponent.
  • America and her allies were preparing their exit strategy from the War in Afghanistan.
  • In science, England suffered bizarre weather, with both flooding and drought.
  • Astronomers were thrilled to see a rare Transit of Venus.
  • From the world of the arts, Edvard Munch’s painting “The Scream” was in the news.
  • Superhero movies and sequels topped the film box office.
  • Finally, Michael Schumacher was crowned Formula 1 World Champion (OK, maybe history isn’t always doomed to repeat itself).

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A Good Month for Bad F1 Anniversaries

Rubens Barrichello makes way to Michael Schuma...

Rubens Barrichello makes way to Michael Schumacher at 2002 Austrian Grand Prix, from English Wikipedia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is a terrible month for anniversaries, or maybe a good month for terrible anniversaries.  We have recently passed the anniversary of Ayrton Senna’s death on 1 May 1994.  We have progressed onto the 30th anniversary of Canadian daredevil driver, Gilles Villeneuve, at Zolder on 8 May 1982.  Looking for, and failing to find, some more positive anniversaries, I discovered that it is 20 years since Nigel Mansell was in the middle of his 5 race winning streak at the start of his tedious steamrollering of the 1992 World Championship in the active suspension Williams FW14B.    One of the best scenes in the movie Senna is a brief shot of the Williams in a pit garage, with the unmanned car dancing like a hyperactive Transformer, as the mechanics adjust the suspension telemetry.

Talking of unfair advantages, it is exactly 10 years this month since the notorious Austrian Grand Prix held on 12 May 2002.  This was the race in which Rubens Barrichello, leading in his Ferrari, was ordered to move over to allow his illustrious teammate, Michael Schumacher, to pass. This was only the 6th race of the season.  Schumacher had already won 4 of the preceding 5 races and was leading the championship by over 20 points.  David Coulthard’s win at Monaco later that month would be the last occasion in the 2002 season on which any car other than a Ferrari crossed the finish line first.  If ever there was an occasion when team orders were not called for, this was it.  Only when the boos began ringing around the A1 Ring did Schumacher and Ferrari team principal Jean Todt look suitably shamefaced, the German meaninglessly pushing the Brazilian onto the top step of the podium.

As usual, Bernie Ecclestone managed to miss the point entirely.  He commented “I did not like what I saw.  Team orders are only acceptable if the championship is in the balance at the end of the year…They could have come up with something more elegant or more discrete.”  So the problem wasn’t asking Rubens to move over, but that Ferrari made it too blatant.  Fortunately, Ferrari learned their lesson and applied the much more subtle “Alonso is faster than you” tactic in Germany 2010.

It seems inevitable, with such a tight championship challenge, that we will hear more about team orders this season.  Indeed, Lotus has already been criticised for not forcing Romain Grosjean to move aside for Kimi Raikkonen.  At least this year, unlike ten years ago, team tactics are likely to be justified.

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Lewis Hamilton, the Fantastic Four, Jenson Button and Spiderman – All Missing from Action

marvel's heroes

marvel’s heroes (Photo credit: thewhitestdogalive)

This Sunday we took our boys to see the new Marvel movie spectacular, Avengers – Assembly.  Pitting Iron Man, Captain America, et al, against the Norse God Loki and some space aliens, it was decidedly not based on a true story.  It was outstandingly loud and violent, but also had some good comic touches and was, overall, tremendous fun.   The movie did, however, prompt a pertinent question from my older son.  If the world was in danger and they were bringing the super heroes together, where were Spiderman and the Fantastic Four?  Surely also, the franchise differences between Marvel and D.C. Comics would be set aside in the interest of human preservation.   At least no one asked Ben Affleck’s less than super,red leather clad Daredevil to join in.

This was the second time in the week when heroes were missing from the action.  With their World Championship in mortal danger from technologically superior alien forces (if you count Austria, Germany and Italy as alien) and an evil genius scientist, in the form of Adrian Newey, where were Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button at the Mugello F1 test?  Instead, McLaren chose to send their second-string heroes into the fight, Garry Paffett and Oliver Turvey, Hawkeye and Howard the Duck, if you will.

I’ve seen the arguments that Hamilton and Button don’t know the Mugello circuit and McLaren doesn’t have any major updates (why not?), but then all the other teams sent at least one of their regular race drivers, who have experience of the cars in race conditions.

Jenson Button proclaimed himself “relaxed” about missing the test, Lewis Hamilton was, allegedly, less so.  If it all works out and McLaren lead the way in Spain then all should be well.  If it doesn’t, how long can Hamilton keep up his Bruce Banner impersonation and how long before he is rampaging down the pitlane?  “Is it ‘cause I’m green?”.

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F1 2012 So Far, Part 2 – The Teams

Formula One 2011 Rd.2 Malaysian GP: Narain Kar...

Formula One 2011 Rd.2 Malaysian GP: Narain Karthikeyan (HRT) during the second practice session on Friday. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the previous post I rated the relative performances of the drivers so far in 2012.  This time it’s the teams’ turn.  Which teams’ members are punching the air and which are punching each other?

Top Bananas

HRT: If you take a conventional points, podiums and wins point of view, then it would be difficult to place HRT in the upper echelons.  However, considering their change of ownership, move to Spain and failed crash test, turning up and being well within the 107% hurdle by race 2 is a significant triumph.  They’re maybe not Champions, but nor are they a real embarrassment.

Lotus:  setting aside all the Group Lotus/Team Lotus kerfuffle last year and the black and gold paintwork, the current “Lotus” has absolutely nothing to do with the legendary Team of Colin Chapman, Jim Clark, Jochen Rindt and Mario Andretti. It does, however, share its DNA with Senna’s Toleman, Schumacher’s Benetton and Alonso’s Renault and seems, now, to be remembering that.

Sauber:  2012 has shown both the very best and worst of Sauber.  For a Team that was left for dead by BMW a couple of years ago to be pushing near the front is impressive. However, when the moment came in Malaysian, the Team’s instinct was for caution and consolidation, not to go for the win.

Williams: After its worst ever season in 2011 it would have been challenging for Williams not to have performed better this year.  I still have my doubts about the driver pairing, but it would be churlish not to acknowledge the Team’s competitive revival.

Orange Squashed

Marussia:  The Team may have lost its Virgin status, but nothing else seems to have changed.  Is there any point in being the second worst team in F1?

Caterham:  The Caterham Team are a bit like the scenes in the cartoon Scooby-Do when Scooby and Shaggy start running away from the old caretaker dressed as a mummy; there’s lots of energy and effort but they don’t seem to make any movement forward.

Toro Rosso:  You have to judge a Team by its own purpose and criteria for success. Toro Rosso exists as the Red Bull kindergarten.  On that basis, neither Ricciardo and Vergne have yet been able to establish themselves as potential promotees.

Mercedes:  On the one hand, that Chinese win was a huge step forward for the Mercedes Team, as demonstrated by Norbert Haug’s Champaign and tear soaked grin on the podium.  However, taken as a whole, the season hasn’t proved yet whether the Silver Arrows can be consistent Championship challengers.

Sour Grapes

Force India: [This commentary has been left deliberately blank under instruction from FOM]

Red Bull:  If only there was a Germanic equivalent of the word schadenfreude.  It was delicious hearing Sebastian Vettel’s desperate enquiries during the Chinese GP practice, “Is it enough? Is it enough”.  No, it wasn’t.  Like a reverse Williams, Red Bull really had nowhere to go but down after their 2011 season and we have all been the beneficiaries, so far.

Ferrari:  1962, 1965, 1969, 1973, 1980, 1991-1993, 2009 – In its long history, Ferrari have had substandard performances and have recovered.  However, I doubt that is much consolation to Fernando Alonso.  At least they didn’t try and use the Malaysian win to paper over the cracks.

McLaren:  I have posted separately about the trials of the McLaren Team.  Is McLaren basically the fastest car, undermined by the vagaries of the Pirelli tyres and a few fumbled pit stops, or is there some more fundamental flaw in the Woking set up?

The good news is, based on 2012 so far, it’s likely that this post will fall out of date very quickly, which wouldn’t have been the case in 2011.

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F1 2012 – Who’s Hot and Who’s Not?

Nico Rosberg had a good race for Mercedes, fin...

Michael Schumacher Photographer: Adrian Hoskins. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So, 4 races into the F1 season, with 4 different winners and 8 different drivers on the podium, team and driver form has fluctuated more wildly than Donald Trump’s hairdo in front of a wind farm.

Only a fool would try to draw any conclusions from the season so far.  So here are my conclusions drawn from the season so far, starting with the drivers.  Compared with the start of the year, who’s stock is soaring higher than Ron Dennis’ blood pressure during a McLaren pit stop, and who’s reputation has dropped faster than Bernie Ecclestone’s chances of winning the humanitarian of the year award?

On the Up

“Topper-most-of -the-poper-most” so far in 2012 are, I think, in no particular order:

Kimi Raikkonen  – To be honest, I’d have bet his weight in coke and ice cream that the Finn’s F1 return would fall flat, but he has applied himself and raced well.  Best of all, we haven’t had to listen to endless comments about what Robert Kubica might have achieved in the Lotus-Renault.

Roman Grosjean – Despite two early baths in the first two races, it is a credit to the Sideshow Bob lookalike that it’s still not clear where supremacy will ultimately lie within the Lotus team this year.  He is a salutary lesson for F1 not to give up on drivers just because their first foray into the top rank, in his case with Renault in 2008, is pants.

Sergio Perez – His second place in Malaysia was terrific and there is now no surprise in seeing him near the sharp end of the field.  How good is he?  We’ll not know for sure whilst he’s with perennial mid-fielders Sauber.  However, the experience of Badoer and Fisichella suggests that he should probably resist the temptation of any proposed mid-season switch to Ferrari.

Fernando Alonso – I’m sure Alonso would have liked a shot at the title, but, honestly, what could be better for his reputation than an ugly, ungainly Ferrari?  Any top 10 position is regarded as a minor miracle.

Honourable mentions too  for Mark Webber and Narain Karthikeyan, both for taking the fight to Vettel in their own ways, Di Resta for his Bahrain drive and Jamie Alguersuari – who knew he could sound articulate and knowledgeable?

The Levellers

Jenlis Butlton – the McLaren twins have been fairly closely matched this year.  Button has had two good and two not so good races. Poor Lewis has finally added some calm and consistency to his armoury, just in time for McLaren to turn into the Keystone Cops.

Michael Schumacher –  I was almost tempted to put him amongst the Uppers for his comments about the disproportionate importance of tyres and tyre management this year.  In addition, he qualified 4th, 3rd and net 2nd in the first three races when qualifying has been his Achilles heel since his return.

Nico Rosberg – Like his nickname-namesake, Britney, Nico has proved with his Malaysian win that he can be a top performer, but you’d still have to worry about his consistency.

Sebastian Vettel – Prior to the Bahrain GP, Vettel might have slipped into the “Downers” compared with his exalted position at the start of the season.

Downers

In China Qualifying 2, 14 cars were covered by less than 0.6 of a second and in Q1 even the HRTs have been well inside the 107% rule.  In other words, none of these drivers are slouches.  However…

Felipe Massa – It’s difficult to believe that the Brazilian’s stock could have actually dropped any further after his 2011 season.  To be honest, I’ve never really understood the trajectory of Felipe’s career from erratic Sauber driver; to dutiful Schumacher stooge; to race winner and genuine title contender; to Alonso’s whipping boy.  Some think him leaving Ferrari might be a blessing in disguise, although, as Winston Churchill said, if it is a blessing it is very well disguised.

Timo Glock – I’ve always been one of those who thought Timo Glock a reasonably talented driver, wasted in the Manor / Virgin / Marussia Team. However, with a long-term contract through to 2014 with the Team, I wonder if the German has become too settled in qualifying 20th or 21st.

Jean-Eric Vergne and Daniel Ricciardo – This might seem a bit cruel, as they are both only a few races into their Torro Rosso drives and both have scored points.  However, the single question hanging over both drivers is whether they are performing better than Sebastien Buemi and Jamie Alguersuari would have done.  The question is still there and with each passing race the clock is ticking for them both.

Next post, the teams.

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McLaren F1 – An Omni-Shambles?

York as Logan 5, with blinking red lifeclock i...

Logan 5 watches another McLaren pit stop go wrong. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After the Chinese and Bahrain double header, Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton might be forgiven for launching into a few Malcolm Tucker of The Thick of It style, expletive laden, tirades. 

This post is not intended as further criticism of the Team’s unfortunate right rear gun-man.  Almost every TV show I’ve seen over the past couple of decades, with the possible exception of the Antiques Road Show and Songs of Praise, has at some stage run a Formula 1 pit stop demonstration.  Despite this, I still have not the slightest inkling of what it must be like to be a member of an F1 pit crew in the heat of a Grand Prix.  No, the McLaren Team’s problems run much, much deeper than a few fumbled tyre changes. 

Whilst other teams might wax and wane, McLaren, along with Ferrari, is accepted as one of the Formula One royalty.  Yet, the bare facts are that the McLaren Team hasn’t won a constructers championship since 1998 and has secured just one driver’s title since 2000, and then only by the skin of a Toyota’s Bridgestones.  A significant chunk of this period was, of course, the Schumacher and Ferrari era of dominance.  However, lesser resourced teams such as Renault, Brawn and Red Bull have all secured multiple titles in recent years.

Where is the flaw in the Woking Team’s world?  The fault can hardly rest with the drivers.  Of the 6 current or former World Champions on the present F1 grid, 4 have driven for McLaren during the past decade.  The Team can’t be criticised for its engineering ability or willingness to innovate – just look at the F-duct and the turn-around in their 2009 season.  McLaren doesn’t lack first class facilities – the McLaren Technology Centre and circuit Brand Centre are testaments to Ron Dennis’ unbending commitment to efficiency, presentation and silver paint

 

McLaren is like one of those futuristic utopias in a 1970s science fiction film.  On the surface, all is gleaming perfection, but underneath there is a rotting flaw waiting to undermine the whole edifice.  McLaren is the Logan’s Run of Formula 1.

What all the teams that have succeeded over the past decade have had – whether Ferrari, Renault, Brawn or Red Bull – is a clear philosophy running through from the design to the race tactics.  That may also be the case with McLaren, but it isn’t so obvious to see.

For the sake of a good 2012 season, I hope that McLaren can sort out the problems they have experienced so far this year, post-Melbourne.  If not, they are likely to face some significant criticism.  An attractive car and some funny Vodaphone adverts will only carry good will so far.

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